Rebuilding a football program -- with a wrench and a hammer
The eagle does not always do what she's told. But at least she's now being told to do something.
When Eastern Michigan hired Heather Lyke as its athletic director in July 2013, the university's live eagle mascot would appear at football games and meet recruits in the team room before leaving with its handler. "Where does the eagle go?" Lyke asked her staff. "Doesn't it hang around the stadium? Do we have a place for it?"
It hasn't always been a smooth flight, but Lyke is trying to take Eastern Michigan athletics to new heights.
Throughout its history, Eastern has performed well on the fields and courts. The school has been a member of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) since 1971 and has won more team championships than any other league member during that span. Of course, cross country and swimming don't get the same attention as football. And on the gridiron, the Eagles historically have not gotten off the ground.
Their last winning football season was in 1995. They've appeared in just one bowl game in their 41-year history, in 1987. The team had the lowest home attendance in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) last year. Football is expensive relative to other sports, and an HBO "Real Sports" episode that aired in April questioned whether the school should abolish the sport because of its cost to the university. The program won just seven games over the previous four seasons before this one.
This year has been different. The Eagles are 6-5 and bowl eligible for the first time since they posted that same record in '95. They'll reach the seven-win mark for the first time in 27 years if they beat Central Michigan at home on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3) in their regular season finale.
"People aren't proud of Eastern Michigan because the football team hasn't been so good [in the past]," Lyke said. "Whether we want to believe it or not, football drives the attention, viewership, enrollment, fundraising. Having a successful football program to go along with the amount of success we've had in other sports was a real priority."
And so she brought in coach Chris Creighton, now in his third season and one of nine head coaches -- along with a dozen administrators -- Lyke has hired at Eastern. Together, they've tried to improve the culture and win more football games, recognizing that succeeding in one task often helps the other.
Eastern renovated Rynearson Stadium before Creighton's first season, replacing the field with gray turf, nicknaming the stadium The Factory, and plastering the athletic department's motto, "Champions Built Here," on the wall below the student section. The phrase emanated from the program's desire to be tough and southeast Michigan's manufacturing history.
Creighton also introduced a 51-pound wrench that represents the team's mission to "close the gap" (the vices illustrate the gap) between its current status and its potential. When the team comes out for warm-ups, they are led by someone -- a coach, administrator, or former player, for example -- carrying the wrench. Lyke carried it last week. And before the team takes the field for home games, a few players use sledgehammers -- which are adorned with the jersey numbers of teammates who delivered big hits in the previous game -- to knock down a wall of cinder blocks.
It will take hard work beyond these motivational symbols to revitalize the football program, and Lyke knows it. A 1992 University of Michigan graduate (where she was a two-time captain under legendary softball coach Carol Hutchins), she worked as an associate AD at Ohio State for 15 years before coming to Eastern. Those two Big Ten schools have financially self-sustaining athletic departments and very famous football teams. Lyke says the guiding principles of an athletic department administrator -- academic success, winning teams, alumni pride -- are similar at all schools, but the approach varies.
"Managing a train that's already on the right track is very different than turning the train and moving it in an absolutely different direction," Lyke said. "That's the fun of it. You get a chance to create a new track and build tradition and do things that have never been done before."
She's one of just 37 women conducting a Division I athletic department (out of 352, according to the latest NCAA data, from 2015-16). Among schools with FBS programs, Lyke is one of only seven women. "When I go to a meeting, everybody knows who we are," she said with a laugh. "The reality is that the athletic director's chair, for whatever reason, has been pretty stagnant." She'd like to see that change.
"I want women to aspire to do this because there's nothing to say you can't," she says. "There are a lot of terrific men and women who will give you a chance. There might be some that wouldn't. Presidents and board members are making these decisions. I can build relationships with donors and board members just as well as a man can. You have to have the self-confidence to do the job. Put yourself out there and don't be afraid to go after it."
She listed long-time ADs Debbie Yow (NC State), Judy Rose (Charlotte) and Sandy Barbour (Penn State) as mentors for her and other women in the field. She also mentioned Kathy Beauregard, the AD at Western Michigan, another MAC school in the state and an example of a football program that has drastically turned things around. Western went 1-11 just three years ago and is 11-0 this season, and ESPN's College GameDay visited Kalamazoo on Saturday.
"She was very aggressive when she got there," Beauregard said of Lyke wasting no time hiring coaches and staff. "It was clear she had done a lot of evaluating ahead of time and didn't hesitate to move forward. She has an outstanding career ahead of her."
While attendance numbers for The Factory are typically unreliable, Lyke feels the hard-working, middle-class community of Ypsilanti, Michigan, has embraced the "Champions built here" theme, and she's seen turnout rise.
When Lyke arrived at Eastern, she repeatedly heard that the athletic department would never succeed because the Ypsilanti campus in southeast Michigan is just 10 miles from the athletic powerhouse in Ann Arbor. (She was told another reason was that alums were unhappy with the school's 1991 decision to change its mascot from "Hurons" -- referring to a Native American tribe -- because the name was deemed insensitive.) Given the drastic financial gap between the schools, Lyke said the University of Michigan is "just not our competition."
Eastern accounting professor Howard Bunsis, who was featured on the aforementioned "Real Sports" episode, said he believes the school should get rid of football -- or at least drop to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) -- because he thinks it would save millions of dollars, money he feels should go toward scholarships and academic support for Eastern's 18,000 undergrads.
Using data that schools report to the NCAA, USA Today reported that of the $34 million budget for Eastern's athletic department, $27 million is subsidized by the university. That's 80 percent, the largest chunk in the MAC.
Despite being a huge sports fan who supports the players and coaches at Eastern, Bunsis said, "No matter what we do [on the field], it's not going to change the finances. We're not going to get the support. Financial support for college football is cultural. It's just not there at EMU."
Right or wrong, it's the sort of attitude that Lyke is up against. When asked if there are any plans to downgrade football to FCS, she smiled and said, "Absolutely not," a notion shared by the board of regents, who wrote an open letter in April supporting Lyke and her department.
Lyke is positive, engaging, and uses the word "phenomenal" often. And why not? Under her watch the student-athletes have set record highs for graduation rates and GPA. The school won two MAC honors for the first time: the Jacoby Trophy (last year) for having the best women's teams, and the Cartwright Award (in 2014), given to the school whose athletes best mix on-field success, academics and community service. For the 2015-16 academic year, Eastern won the National Championship for Excellence in Management, given to the FBS school that best maximizes fiscal resources through championship victories.
Department awards are one thing; winning football games is another. Eastern Michigan almost certainly will fill one of the 80 bowl slots this season. While this would be just the second bowl invite in Eastern's history, at least one fan doesn't want the team to settle. At a coaches' luncheon last week, an older gentleman advised Creighton, "Don't go to that one in Detroit," presumably referring to the Quick Lane Bowl. Never mind that the MAC is no longer tied to that bowl, he was aiming for a "better" destination.
Was this an overly demanding fan or a subtle sign that the culture is changing just a little bit?
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer. He writes about college athletics and other sports at andrewjkahn.com, and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.